The New Yorker‘s “Letter From” essays, though they’re always entertaining and executed with finesse, can leave the reader with an impression that’s basically: “Kazakhstan (or wherever), how wacky.” Keith showed exactly how and why Kazakhstan’s history and political situation have created a unique way of life, and also those crazy skyscrapers in the middle of the steppe that make Williamsburg’s waterfront look tasteful. And he ate horse ham.
Feminist critic and longtime New School professor Ann Snitow “leapt to join” a program that brings New School teachers to a correctional facility upstate out of “boredom”—she craved a challenge less played-out than trying to get college students to care about feminism, which she says is “everywhere and nowhere” in their lives. The result is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read. Snitow confronts her own preconceived notions and white liberal guilt head-on, but also gives herself credit for being a good teacher. She evokes her students’ complexity by describing their surprising, varied responses to the movies she assigns. At one point she gives them a speech: “I know in all your classes and workshops you’re being taught to take responsibility for what you’ve done, and I’m not saying no to that. But responsibility is different from shame. Best to see the endless tale of one’s badness as an inadequate story, meant to make you feel like a worm. OK, take responsibility, but also move on. Everyone is dependent; total independence is a myth. Inside or out, dependency is the human condition.” “This hectoring lecture hasn’t convinced anyone,” she writes, but I think she underestimates herself.
I’m obsessed with smells and with New York, which contains maybe the world’s best and worst smells, often in the same two-block radius. Molly Young’s descriptions of smells are a joy. Her descriptions in general are a joy. She’s just getting better and better and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (My fantasy would be a regular column about smells, but that’s probably unrealistic.)
Here, Rich Beck breaks down and rearticulates one of groundbreaking radical feminist and pop culture critic Ellen Willis’s most powerful—and most confusing—arguments. This is a must, must, must, must read for anyone interested in the past, present and future of the fight for equality.
This and #2, I would recommend if it’s been a while since you last wept uncontrollably. There’s really not a lot else to say about this. It’s an unsentimental examination of a cosmically unfair event, the the kind of thing no one wants to acknowledge is possible, but which happens regularly. I have no idea how the author could stand to write it, unless he also couldn’t stand not to write it. The parts about his daughter’s imaginary friend are also very funny, incredibly.
Bonus! (Kindle Single edition)
• “How A Book Is Born,” by Keith Gessen ($1.99)
I didn’t want to be disgusting and pick 5 things by my boyfriend but I wish I could assign anyone who thinks he or she might someday publish a book to read this long examination of how publishing works. The combination of virtue and talent coinciding with luck—the endless variables that combine to make a “literary” bestseller—just boggles the mind. This is stuff that many people who work in publishing or who work in novel-writing either don’t know or don’t allow themselves to consciously know. Buy this as a gift for your friend the corporate lawyer who keeps saying he’s going to take a sabbatical year to “write his novel.”
• “American Juggalo,” by Kent Russell ($1.99)
Psychic forecast: the year-end Longreads best-of list next year will be everything people are saying right now about John Jeremiah Sullivan, but for the words “John Jeremiah Sullivan” substitute “Kent Russell.”
(photo credit: Stephen Deshler)